Hollywood addresses aging in mostly two ways: dramas that examine how your body and mind change, often through debilitating illness (Amour, Still Alice, Nebraska), or comedies that get their humor from placing older actors in “unlikely” situations, like having sex with Aubrey Plaza (Dirty Grandpa) or going all out in Las Vegas (uh, Last Vegas) or teaching Anne Hathaway valuable things about life because women can’t have it all (The Intern). These are movies with a pretty regular set of actors, like Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton and Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood; these are movies that are mostly meant to send the alternating messages “Isn’t getting old harrowing and embarrassing?” and “Sure, getting old is harrowing, so pop some Viagra and keep on going so you’re not embarrassed!” (You and I both know that Pfizer is probably helping bankroll this genre.)
And so given all that and what we’ve come to expect from these films, The Old Man & the Gun is surely unusual, more like the cult classic Harold and Maude than, say, Grumpy Old Men. This is a movie that addresses aging, yes, but not in the ways you are trained to expect; no one throws their back out during a sex scene or receives a devastating medical diagnosis or yells for kids to get off their lawn. The old man isn’t wearing a hearing aid, but listening to a police scanner; when he mentions a list of things he still hasn’t tried yet, like riding a horse, his companion laughingly urges him to get moving. This is a film about having spent your entire life doing one thing and getting really fucking good at it, to the detriment of some people and the delight of others; it’s about being an aging outlaw, a renegade with nowhere left to run. Filmmaker David Lowery’s adaptation of a 2003 New Yorker article with the same name, The Old Man & the Gun has gotten some early buzz for Robert Redford’s declaration that this will be his final acting role, and the film leans into that. This is a movie meant to remind you, “Holy fuck, Redford is unparalleled,” a movie that relies on that face, a movie that reinforces the charm this man has demonstrated throughout dozens of years.
It’s effective as hell, and The Old Man & the Gun ends up being a fitting homage to Redford, who over his entire career has defined a certain sort of American masculinity. That sandy blond hair and that chiseled jaw and that smile, oh damn, that smile! Redford’s no-nonsense directness and awareness of his WASP-y looks—and how to either play into them or work against them—were used to great effect in The Great Gatsby and Jeremiah Johnson and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men and The Way We Were and The Sting and Three Days of the Condor and Spy Game and The Natural and The Horse Whisperer and All is Lost and Pete’s Dragon and yes, even Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Redford is an American legend, full stop, and he uses all of his tricks in The Old Man & the Gun to win you over and to sweep you up and to break your heart.
Redford hasn’t played bad guys very often, but it’s arguable whether Forrest Tucker is fully a bad guy. He is a man with a methodical routine: walk into a bank, ask to speak with a manager about a loan, flash a gun tucked underneath his trench coat, and calmly, intentionally announce, “This is a robbery.”
Sometimes he’ll flash that legendary Redford grin when instructing a bank teller to stay calm (“Don’t go breaking my heart now, OK?”), but most of the time people cooperate, and Tucker has two partners, Teddy (Danny Glover) and Waller (Tom Waits), who are always either with him inside the bank or waiting outside. Their whole system is figured out; they know what they’re doing. They’ve been doing it for decades, and no one seems interested in catching them, so they keep walking out of banks with leather suitcases and briefcases full of cash, stacks of bills Forrest tosses under a loose floorboard in the house he lives in, across the street from a cemetery. The man isn’t afraid of death, and he’s not even really afraid of being caught. He’s already escaped from prison more than a dozen times, and yet he keeps committing crimes that land him inside. That cycle may be the only thing Forrest knows how to do—the thing he’s great at—and staying imprisoned isn’t part of the plan.
That desire for freedom is what initially leads Forrest to Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a woman he first talks to as a way to evade the police but whose no-bullshit attitude attracts him. She lives on a big piece of property, she rides horses, she is self-sufficient in a way that perhaps mirrors how Forrest views himself. And so during the summer and autumn of 1981, as Forrest and his crew—“a gang of pistol-packing grandpas,” one police officer comments—are holding up banks in Texas and Oklahoma and Missouri, being chased by robbery detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck, distracting and detracting), he pursues a relationship with Jewel, sort of telling her who he is and what he does, but only sort of.
“You spend so much time thinking you’re happy and you wake up one day and realize you’re not,” Jewel says when he asks her about her marriage to her deceased husband, her relationship with her kids, and her life, and that’s exactly the realization Forrest is trying to avoid. “I’m not talking about making a living. I’m just talking about living,” he says, and that’s approximately when I started crying and didn’t stop because FEELINGS.
The Old Man & the Gun spends so much time with Forrest, and his whole persona is so compelling and fascinating, that when the movie begins to split time between Redford’s character and Affleck’s, you can’t help but be upset (especially because Affleck’s performance is even more mumbly and scattered than usual, although he does have one stand-out scene that I can’t deny). Hunt is committed to finding Tucker, and he refuses to work with the FBI when they show up, continuing his own investigation instead; the detective who was checked out of his job becomes reinvigorated with the prospect of catching a criminal actually worth his time. “If you caught him, you wouldn’t get to chase him anymore,” Hunt’s daughter notes, and so the allure of Forrest Tucker grows even more, so that he’s no longer just one man but a figure for spontaneity and recklessness, for refusing society’s rules and for doing whatever you like for however long you like.
The Old Man & the Gun doesn’t ultimately wholly support that idea of life—it ends on notes of grounded humanity that bring its mythical central figure down to heartbreaking size—but cinematographer Joe Anderson creates some beautiful images that paint Redford as a solitary cowboy, as a lone gunman, as the last example of a generation whose days have passed them by. A sequence where Forrest, driving a matte black car with bills flying out of the open trunk while a caravan of police officers chase him through an open field, is thrilling and gorgeous. And the score from Daniel Hart adds a peppy rhythm to the robbery scenes while being otherwise restrained; we don’t quite reach Soderbergh-in-Ocean’s levels of jazziness.
There’s a scene early on in The Old Man & the Gun when Glover’s Teddy doesn’t necessarily warn Forrest that this life can’t last, but that he needs to be aware of himself and who he is now: “I know what I’m doing too, but I also know what I’m capable of, and these days, those are two different things.” Forrest blows him off at first, but by the end of The Old Man & the Gun, you’ll understand what a gift Teddy’s statement was, how sobering and self-aware and lovely, a reflection on a life lived and reckoned with and experienced, in happiness and in sadness, in selfishness and in generosity. What a fitting sendoff for Redford; what a phenomenal final performance.s
Image sources (in order of posting): Fox Searchlight Press, Fox Searchlight Press, Fox Searchlight Press